Calories, Energy, and Chinese Medicine

Raw food is often upheld as the pinnacle of healthy but cooked food shares more of its energy
April 15, 2015 Updated: March 12, 2020

It’s not uncommon to see patients in my acupuncture clinic who are struggling with poor energy. Some sleep well but wake up tired. Some wear out over the course of the day, others fluctuate during the day, and still, others are just plain exhausted from morning to night.

I ask about their energy because, in Chinese medicine, energy is the all-important ingredient in moving your body, transforming food into nutrients, protecting you from outside pathogens, keeping you warm, and all the other day-to-day things that you want to do.

When I ask my tired patients what they’re eating, they almost always tell me that they’re eating healthfully–lots of fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, they’re eating all those good foods raw, which is only aggravating their poor energy levels. How is their seemingly wonderful diet a problem?

Well, the ancient Chinese knew that while you derive your energy from the foods you eat, it also takes a certain amount of energy to digest those foods.

For years, I’ve been telling my patients who struggle with fatigue or digestive problems to cook their vegetables and fruits, as they’re easier to digest and it takes far less energy to do so. In addition, I’ve advised them to avoid very cold foods, as their body has to heat the food to body temperature before it can be properly broken down and digested. While this may sound far-fetched, food scientists are now telling us essentially the same thing.

Wait … what? A calorie is a calorie is a calorie, right? Well, technically yes, but according to an article in Scientific American, it turns out the calorie counts you see on food labels are merely estimates. In fact, nutrition scientists are now learning that how much energy you get from your food is far more complicated than we ever thought. The actual caloric content of a particular food can vary, depending on a number of factors.

A calorie is a scientific way to measure the amount of energy available in food. A gram of fat provides about nine calories because it’s easily digested and provides more energy than a gram of protein (four calories), which is harder to digest. In other words, it takes more energy to digest protein, so you give up a little energy in the process of digesting and gain fewer calories.

A gram of fiber only gives you about two calories, because it takes even more work, or energy, to digest. A gram of carbohydrate also gives you four calories, but that said, all of these counts are just approximations.

For example, because heat does some of the work of digestion for us, there are more calories in cooked food than the same food that is raw.

One of the foundations of Chinese food therapy is that the ideal diet is different for each person. Therefore, a person who is ill or has digestive problems would benefit from a very different diet than a healthy person with good digestion.

In Chinese medicine, foods are chosen according to their inherent warmth or coolness and their action on the body. In addition, how foods are cooked or combined also impacts how beneficial they are to your body and how much energy they provide.

The bottom line is that the calorie count in foods is not created equal. How you cook a particular food and what your body does to digest it has an impact on how much energy you’ll get from it. So if you’re struggling with fatigue or poor energy, there are ways to get a little more of a boost from what you’re eating.

Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on